This Week in Bidenomics: Finding Partial Credit
President Biden took the half measure.
On at least three major policy issues, Biden is backtracking on campaign promises as he tries to enact policies that appease liberal Democrats without creating accountability among moderate and independent voters. Biden clearly has the midterm elections on his mind, as well as predictions that Democrats will lose control of the House and possibly the Senate.
On energy policyBiden recently announced that he would authorize certain new oil and gas drilling leases on federal lands, softening the stance he took as a candidate. Biden had previously sworn to no new drilling on federal lands, and he signed an executive order to that effect shortly after taking office in 2021. But high gas prices forced Biden to retreat and legal challenges undermined the executive order anyway. So Biden gave in.
The new policy only covers about 20% of the land Biden could have opened up, and he also increased the royalties drillers must pay by 50%. So it’s a kind of “yes, but” seesaw. Environmental groups were furious anyway, calling Biden’s decision “reckless” and worse. Biden probably anticipated this and thought it was more important to show drivers that he was trying to do something to lower gas prices than to stick with climate activists while millions are doing rage over the cost of a full one.
On student loans, Biden’s education department said the On April 19, around 40,000 borrowers would make it easier to repay their loans under a shadowy program designed to erase the debt of low-income workers, over time. An additional 3.6 million people could be closer to debt cancellation, thanks to new measures to track loans and improve the accountability of loan servicers. Biden also issued four extensions to the date student loan borrowers must resume payments, one of the emergency COVID measures passed by Congress in 2020. Biden will likely extend that again, with borrowers being waived from make payments until the end of this year or the beginning of next.
That sounds good, but it all falls well short of Biden’s campaign pledge to eliminate up to $10,000 in student debt for millions of borrowers. Some Democrats are urging Biden to go further by eliminating up to $50,000 in debt. Biden appears to be stalling on a broad debt forgiveness, offering consolation prizes instead.
On immigration, Biden, the presidential candidate, suggested he would ending trump-era politics to promptly send migrants home, regardless of the legitimacy of asylum claims, as an emergency measure to limit the spread of COVIDd. Biden maintained the policy, known as the “Title 42in place, however, until the Centers for Disease Control said earlier this month that it would end the policy starting May 23. So Biden finally decided to do what he said he would do. Except he might change his mind, given that some of his fellow Democrats now think he’s a bad-time political loser who could produce a wave of migration and further reduce their electoral chances in November.
On each of these issues, Biden is arguably making a rational political decision. Trying to lower gas prices today (even inefficiently) doesn’t necessarily contradict climate policy aimed at reducing carbon emissions in 10 or 20 years, which is Biden’s goal. Modest aid for those who suffer the most from student loans is appropriate, given that many policy pundits think college graduate debt forgiveness is a terrible idea, and many moderates agree. Immigration is a wasp’s nest that no president seems able to tame, so Biden might as well make American politics more humane, as many Democrats are demanding.
But Biden is essentially asking voters for partial credit on issues he has taken strong stances on, and his low approval ratings suggest he won’t get it. Biden is stuck in this position because it normally takes Congress doing something big — and Democrats can’t do it. Biden wanted nearly $600 billion for green energy investments in his ‘build back better’ legislation, which would have bought tons of credibility with environmentalists, and possibly their silence on Biden’s reversal of drilling . But Congress couldn’t pass BBB, leaving Biden with weak cards to play.
There are major questions about whether the president has the legal authority to write off large amounts of student debt, as some congressional Democrats insist he does. Congress could do that by passing a law, but again, Democrats don’t have the votes. Congress could also pass immigration reform and save the president the trouble of questionable executive actions to deal with migrant influxes and other thorny issues. But it’s easier to tell the president to invoke powers he doesn’t have than to take a contentious vote that could cost an election.
Here there is an interesting contrast between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Trump has made absolutist demands and gone too far as president on thorny issues such as the border wall, immigration from Muslim countries and the repeal of regulations. The policy was sometimes reckless and the courts routinely overruled Trump’s orders, but everyone knew where he stood.
Biden is much more cautious and practical, reluctant to impose a policy he says is unlikely to last. Yet it’s harder to know what Biden stands for, as his political accent can be subtle and his own party contradicts him surprisingly often. Biden touts some priorities in capitals, some in lowercase, and some in footnotes, and he expects voters to read the fine print.*
* Chances are they won’t.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How winners go from failure to success.» Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. You can also send confidential advice.